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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

III. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning

§ 13. Christmas Eve and Easter Day

The Italian period of Browning’s life was comparatively barren. It has been suggested that this was due, in part, to the fact that the climate of Italy lowered his vitality; in part, to the unpopularity of his works. Moreover, he took to drawing, and to modelling in clay, copying masterpieces with intense pleasure. Only two publications of verse marked this period—Christmas Eve and Easter Day (1850) and Men and Women (1855). He also wrote at this time an essay on Shelley, by way of introduction to Certain Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1852), which were afterwards found to be fabrications. The essay was evidently influenced by Milsand’s article on Browning himself, in La Revue des Deux Mondes. It accentuates in the same way the distinction between subjective and objective poetry, and discusses Shelley’s work with much skill and insight.

In Christmas Eve and Easter Day, critics discover clear evidence of the influence of Elizabeth Browning’s devout Christian faith. Browning had been interested in religion all his life: for the “atheism” which he caught from Shelley was as superficial and temporary as the vegetarianism. Pauline, Paracelsus, Pippa Passes, all the principal poems of the early period bear witness to his sense of the profound significance of religion. Christmas Eve deals with contemporary attitudes towards Christianity—dissent, the higher criticism, Roman catholicism—with a characteristic preference for the first. Easter Day is more restrained and stern, more full of lyric beauty and more searching in its truth. It deals with the inner nature of the faith that is religious—religious and not epicurean or materialistic—not seeking its evidences in outward happenings or its worth in the complacency which it brings, the zest it gives to joy, or the bitterness it takes away from sorrow. Both poems are dramatic; neither is to be regarded as the poet’s confession of faith; nevertheless, they express the profoundest of his spiritual convictions, which centred upon the most sublime of all religious hypotheses, namely, that of the omnipotence and omnipresence of a Christlike God, the divine power and work of love. Saul, especially the second part, which contains the prophecy of Christianity, Cleon, Karshish, bear witness to the same conceptions—the omnipresent wonder that transcends definition, and is yet the sole sure light whereby man can walk and find safe footing.

Elizabeth Browning’s influence may be detected, also, in the poems which treat of love. The original Dramatic Lyrics (the Dramatic Lyrics as they stood before poems were transferred thereto from Men and Women) included Cristina and In a Gondola, and among Dramatic Romances and Lyrics there appeared The Lost Mistress. But the collection which included A Woman’s Last Word, Any Wife to Any Husband, The Last Ride Together, One Way of Love, among many more, was certainly a richer rendering of the marvel of love than any of his previous works. It is probable that no single poet, in any country, so rendered the variety of its phases and the abundance of its power—its triumph, its failure; its victory over the world, its defeat by the world; its passion and poignancy; its psychical subtlety and its romance, and the immensity of its spiritual significance, whether in the life of the soul or in the outer cosmos.

Many of the poems in Men and Women of which the scene can be determined have reference to Italy. But it is doubtful whether his residence in Italy influenced Browning’s choice of subjects to any great extent. “He was deeply Italianised before he went to live in Italy.” To say nothing of Sordello and Pippa Passes, there was an Italian group in the original Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, which is almost as conspicuous as that of the original Men and Women. After The Ring and the Book, Italian subject become both more rare and less important.

On leaving Italy, Browning settled in London. With the change of residence came a change of habit. His Italian life, quiet in the early years, had become gradually much more social. In Florence, in Rome and during their visits to London, the charm of Elizabeth Browning, and Robert Browning’s own genius for noble friendship, brought them into intimate relations with the most gifted of their time. After her death, until the spring of 1863, he retired within himself, and his life, as he said, was “as grey as the London sky.” Then, he thought that way of life morbid and unworthy, resolved to accept every suitable invitation and, thenceforth, his figure was familiar in the circles of the lovers of literature, although, except for a very few friends, all women, none ever saw of Browning more than “a splendid surface.”

In 1863, he was much agitated by a proposal to publish a life of Elizabeth Browning, with letters. He turned savagely upon “the blackguards” who would “thrust their paws into his bowels,” and he destroyed the greater part of his own correspondence. But he preserved the letters that had passed between himself and his wife prior to their marriage; with the result that hardly anyone, except, perhaps, Carlyle, protested more strongly against the intrusion of spies into his life’s intimacies, and had the inner shrine more ruthlessly laid bare. He, however, freely gave to the public what had been intended for them. He republished Elizabeth Browning’s prose essays on the Greek Christian poets and the English poets in 1863; and, two years later, made a selection from her poems, and expressed his delight at the popularity which made it necessary.

For three years in succession, he spent the summer months at Ste. Marie, near Pornic, where he worked at his Dramatis Personae, published in 1864. Part of 1866 and 1867 was spent at Croisic, the name of which is linked with The Two Poets of Croisic, as he linked that of Pornic with Gold Hair, Red Cotton Night-Cap Country and the gypsy woman of Fifine at the Fair.